When the people of Wales voted for self governance ten years ago, they built a state building, known as Senedd, that implemented groundbreaking green building practices into the world's most sustainable public building. TPR recently spoke with Richard Gwyn Jones, public information officer for the Welsh State Assembly, who explained some of the revolutionary sustainability features that make Senedd such a stunning symbol of national pride and sustainability.
On March 1, 2006, the new National Assembly for Wales, "Senedd," was officially opened. How was it that the devolution of power to Wales led to the commission for this building?
Ten years ago, there was a referendum, and a question was simply put to the people of Wales: Do you want to make decisions in Wales for issues that affect the people of Wales, issues such as culture, the economy, education, the environment, equality of opportunity, health, and transport here in Wales?" By a very slim majority, people said yes. In 1999, the National Assembly for Wales was set up. Initially the Assembly had a temporary home next door. Just over 18 months ago we came into this brand new building known as the Senedd.
"Senedd" is a Welsh word. It comes from the Latin, and it has the same meaning as the English word "senate." It's a building where people come to meet, to share ideas and essentially make decisions that affect the lives of the Welsh people. It's a building that encourages people to play an active role in the politics of Wales, which will hopefully lead to Wales becoming a more vibrant and prosperous country.
Talk a little bit about the commission that was assigned to the architects. What were they asked to do?
The brief given to the Richard Rogers Partnership was to build a "green" or sustainable building, using local and natural materials, promoting Wales to the wider world. It is very much an iconic building.
Most of the materials used in the building are indigenous to Wales: Welsh oak from Pembrokeshire, 1,000 tons of Welsh slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, and Welsh steel. However, we also used the best of the rest of the world. We have Western red cedar wood from British Columbia in Canada, and "Saint-Gobain" glass from France, which is specially reinforced and has an insulating property, making it a very sustainable material.
The building is naturally ventilated, so we don't rely on air-conditioning, as most modern buildings do. Our main source of heating is geothermal, that is to say, it comes from the ground. We recycle the rainwater that falls onto the building and use it in the public conveniences. Overall we estimate the consumption of energy here is between 30-50 percent lower than what you would normally expect for a building of this type and size.
Who made up the architectural team assembled to build the Senedd?
The team that worked with us on this building were from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (formerly the Richard Rogers Partnership). They built the Pompidou Center in Paris, France, the Lloyd's building in London, and more recently were awarded the Stirling Prize by the Royal Institute of British Architects for its Barajas Terminal building in Madrid. So it was a team that had proved itself before coming down to Cardiff to build us this brand new Parliament building.
What critiques of the building have been voiced, positive and otherwise? What have people said about the sustainability features that are such an essential part of its design?
There's been great interest in the building. In October 2007 we welcomed our 500,000th visitor to the building-half a million visitors in just over a year-and-a-half. There's also been some skepticism-not all the people of Wales were in favor of devolution. Also, from an architectural point of view, it's a building that makes a real statement. It's not a conventional building of any sort. People come with a little skepticism, but I have to say, most of the time, once people have spent a little time in the building, looking around, understanding how the building works, they leave in a very positive frame of mind-and that's just the people of Wales.
Since the building opened we've welcomed visitors from all over the world: architects, planners, designers, heads of state, and ambassadors. Internationally, this building has caused waves. People have come to see and learn how there are alternative ways of building in this day and age, that doesn't have to cost the earth. You can build something that's sustainable but not cost-prohibitive.
In the U.S., LEED standards judge the sustainability of a building. What benchmarks do you use to judge a building's sustainability?
In the U.K. you have what's called the BREEM Standard, and this building received an Excellence Award. This building is at the top of that standard. It really is a building that's defying convention and shouting out that there are alternative ways of doing things. Of course, the ambition we have here is to stimulate debate and encourage others to reconsider how they go about designing and building their buildings in the future.
How well does the Senedd function for its purposes of representative democracy?
The building provide several spaces for the 60 elected members to meet. There is the main debating chamber, which is used every Tuesday and Wednesday for Plenary meetings-when they all come together to discuss issues relating to the passing of legislation. There are also smaller Committee rooms where the real work by the members is done-this is where policies are formulated and the Ministers scrutinized.
However, there is a very special concept at the Senedd: wherever the elected members are meeting, the public is invited to come in to see and hear everything that goes on. They can sit in a gallery that allows them to see the members at work, having their deliberations, and even in the café area upstairs there are small screens where you can follow proceedings.
Many people will come here for a cup of coffee, to meet up with friends and colleagues and at the same time find out a little about the democratic process. In reality Cardiff is becoming far more important politically than London to the people of Wales.
Clearly the National Assembly building is an iconic building. What is it meant to say through its design?
As we sit here looking over Cardiff Bay, watching the ships and boats sailing on the waterway I think what this building says is that we're living in a confident and vibrant Wales that is not scared of taking challenges. I hope the building will continue to represent that new type of Wales and continue to welcome visitors from all over the world.